CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- David Corbin grew up in Dunbar and got both an undergraduate and graduate degree from Marshall University, but like many from his generation had never been taught about the southern West Virginia mine wars that took place in the early part of last century.
May 19 marked the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Matewan, where private detectives from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency and a group of coal miners led by Matewan chief of police Sid Hatfield violently clashed at the town's train depot, leaving seven detectives and four townspeople dead.
On Sunday, Corbin, author of "Life, Work and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners 1880 - 1922," helped mark the anniversary by lecturing on the historical context of the "Matewan Massacre" at the West Virginia Humanities Council.
Corbin said he had never been taught about the mine wars in school, and after some research discovered that the historical accounts of the incidents had been not allowed in the state's textbooks at the recommendation of Gov. Homer Holt.
"West Virginians had been taught to be ashamed of their history," Corbin said during the lecture. "Many outsiders viewed what happened as nothing more than hillbilly feuds."
The lecture gave insight to what the miners were saying about the labor movement and the mine company's resistance at the time. Corbin scoured "Letter to the Editor" pages from old mine worker's journals.
"It's a major historical source that people are overlooking," he said. "I wanted to write about the miners but couldn't avoid the union. I had gone through the mine workers journal and started to look at the 'Letters to the Editor.' It's a great source for social history."
What Corbin found was that many of the miners who wrote in compared themselves historically with the American's from the Revolutionary War, quoting many of the famous revolutionaries from the time, including Patrick Henry's quote, "Give me liberty or give me death."
The 1987 feature film, "Matewan," told the story of what happened on that day in 1920. Although it was not entirely historically accurate, Corbin, who works as an historian and speechwriter for Sen. Robert Byrd, said he thought the film did a wonderful job of telling the story that had been hidden from history and textbooks for so long.
"I always keep in mind when I'm watching a movie from a historical setting that it's a feature film and not a documentary," Corbin said. "You have to take certain liberties (in feature films). I thought they did a great job of portraying the Baldwin-Felts guards."
And while Corbin has spent years researching and writing about the miners involved in the labor struggles, he said some people have accused him of being one-sided and overlooking the perspectives of the mine companies.
"I'm not saying who is right or wrong, I'm saying this is what the miners did and why they did it," he said. "On the other hand, there needs to be a good story on the other side - not defending the industry, but why they industry did what they did, particularly the Baldwin-Felts guards."
Contact writer Tom Bragg at 304-348-4886 or tom.br...@dailymail.com.